By Kathleen Hennessey
WASHINGTON -- Announcing his first steps in response to the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, President Obama on Wednesday charged a task force with drawing up a list of proposals to reduce gun violence across the nation and urged Congress to hold votes on gun control legislation early in the new year.
Obama ordered the task force to return its recommendations "no later than January" and vowed to use the full force of his office to push for the proposals. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the group, which includes members of Obama's Cabinet, representatives of pertinent interest groups, law enforcement officials and gun rights advocates.
"We may never know all the reasons why this tragedy happened," Obama said as he announced the effort in the White House briefing room. "We do know that every day since, more Americans have died of gun violence. We know such violence has terrible consequences for our society. If there is even one thing we can do to prevent these events, we have a deep obligation to try."
It was the fourth time the president has spoken about the mass slaying of 20 first-graders and six of their guardians in an elementary school last Friday in Newtown.
The president made clear he is seeking to harness the public outrage at the shootings, and will consider gun control proposals that fellow Democrats have shelved over the years because of potential political consequences.
Obama's remarks Wednesday showed he was mindful that public emotions may fade, and he signaled that he is willing to expend political capital to make the fight against gun violence a priority in his second term.
Obama defended the task force as a serious effort, "not some Washington commission."
"This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside," he said.
Obama acknowledged the challenging politics of gun control. He emphasized that the task force would look beyond stiffer gun laws for solutions, including measures that address cultural influences and mental health services.
He also repeated his position that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to bear arms and made an overture to gun owners.
"This country has a strong tradition of gun ownership that's been handed down from generation to generation," Obama said. "And the fact is the vast majority of gun owners in America are responsible."
Still, it's clear the White House's focus is on pushing for new gun laws. Obama stated his support for congressional efforts to revive a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, as well as a push to close a loophole that allows people to buy weapons at gun shows without background checks.
Obama urged Congress to hold votes on such measures "in a timely manner" in the new year. He also noted that Congress has not confirmed a nominee for director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives the last six years, and he urged lawmakers to act.
Asked by a reporter why he had not taken action on gun violence in his first term, Obama responded that he has focused on other priorities.
"I've been president of the United States, dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars. I don't think I've been on vacation," he said. "And so, you know, I think all of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington."